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Building the future: New Zealand at the ‘Olympics of architecture’, the Venice Biennale

Late last month marked the launch of the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture, a global festival celebrating the best in building design ideas. For only the second time in its 36 year history, New Zealand was among the exhibitors, and Michael Barrett was there.

Every two years the ancient and beautiful tourist-swamp of Venice hosts a carnival of architecture: a Biennale. With superb architecture for miles, Venice is the ideal place for such an event, a living example of how the quality and spirit of a city can draw people in. Although, with respect to the living, rumour has it that during Biennale season the majority of locals disappear across the lagoon to Mestre (the Veneto’s industrial Onehunga), freeing up quaint canal-side dwellings for lucrative Air BnB income from people like me.

The architecture Biennale alternates years with its more established and more popular big brother, the art Biennale. It’s sometimes cast as the Olympics of architecture, which might conjure images of people in heavily structured clothing having speed drawing races, but the analogy is true enough. This is an architectural league of nations, attended by 62 countries that are there (generally) because they have good stories to tell about what they do and why they do it and because they are concerned about the exchange of ideas. New Zealand, to its credit, is one of those countries – here for just the second time with an exhibition called Future Islands.

Future Islands at Palazzo Bollani, Venice. Photo: David St George

Future Islands at Palazzo Bollani, Venice. Photo: David St George

The big guns of the Biennale hang out in the Giardini, a garden full of pavilions owned by their respective nations. There’s an unverified story that New Zealand had an opportunity to buy a pavilion site in the 1980s, but didn’t take it. True or not, today we’re a nation of renters, which seems appropriate given the forecasts about potential home ownership back home.

Last year, as part of the art Biennale, Simon Denny managed to rent both the very fancy Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana and part of Marco Polo Airport. Future Islands, in contrast, occupies the more modest – yet still charming – Bollani Palazzo, on a square near a busy central strip of the Riva degli Schiavone, the main waterfront promenade. Given the nature of our exhibition and our own geographic isolation, it seems fitting that the exhibition is also an island, away from everyone else, out on the fringe.

Future Islands is installed in two rooms on the top floor of Bollani. One room is large and light-filled; the other, smaller, is blacked out to allow a time-lapse projection showing the effects of complete inundation of land by sea. The installation is an archipelago of 22 ‘”islands”, abstract landforms built by the company that constructs America’s Cup yachts, suspended from the Bollani’s very high ceilings. Arranged on the islands are scores of models of architectural projects, some of which have been built, some not. It is elegant and surreal – a fine piece of work that tells multiple versions of New Zealand’s architectural story.

In developing the concept for the exhibition, New Zealand’s curator Charles Walker was influenced by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In the 1972 novel, the 55 cities Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan are revealed to be versions of just one – Venice. In a similar way, the models of Future Islands construct versions of New Zealand. Some are barbed – a sea of second homes surrounds an intricate model of the Auckland City Mission accommodation building, still unbuilt. Some are poignant, like the LuxCity pop-up from Christchurch’s 2012 Festival of Transitional Architecture – post ’quake architecture for, and by, the people.

Future Islands curator Charles Walker and associate curator Kathy Wagorn. Photo: David St George

Future Islands curator Charles Walker and associate curator Kathy Wagorn. Photo: David St George

Walker calls the islands “sites of possibility”. He liked the idea of using Calvino’s novel to hint at a connection between two island places, Venice and New Zealand. His associate creative director, Kathy Waghorn, says Future Islands is as much about architects’ responsibilities as it is about architecture’s possibilities.

“Architects should be optimistic that they can make a difference. They are well equipped to offer alternative solutions to contemporary economic and environmental challenges. We believe architects, wherever they are practising, have to put themselves forward if the world is to have a sustainable and equitable future.”

Future Islands is a superlative visual spectacle and stands up strongly against the best of the Biennale. I do wonder how many visitors will ‘get it’: there is no labelling or explanation anywhere in the two rooms, although there is a catalogue. But it’s an accomplished piece of work – one that is “not to be missed”, according to Architectural Review, granddaddy of architecture publications. High praise indeed.

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It’s a long way from Te Urewera to Venice, and the delegation from Ngāi Tūhoe deserve a special mention for making it to Italy to support screenings of Ever the Land, a documentary about the development of Te Wharehou o Tūhoe, the iwi’s tribal HQ. If you haven’t seen the film, seek it out for its fascinating insights into people- and land-driven architecture.

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The last Biennale’s curator was Rem Koolhaas, the journalist turned architect who once wrote a really long book with a very small phrase (“fuck context”) that made him into a deity in architectural circles. Rem was briefly at a Biennale function the other night. He’s tall and thin, bald, a bit hawk-like. By wearing a black t-shirt he made everyone else appear overdressed – though, conversely, when a squad of Italian admirals walked past in full regalia we started to feel a little underdone.

But Rem’s old news; this year’s curator is Alejandro Aravena, a clever, intense architect from Chile. He won this year’s Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Academy Award. Aravena was at the same party as Rem and me. He was dressed in soft linen and comfortable shoes, a fittingly low-key uniform for an architect often occupied with social causes. Back home in Chile, his ‘half a good house’ projects provide “incremental” housing for those locked out of home ownership. The government stumps up cash for land and a building, but not enough for a good, full-sized house. These ‘half houses’ are built into a timber frame that occupants can complete when they have the readies, exponentially increasing the value of their investment.

Curator Alejandro_Aravena. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

Curator Alejandro Aravena. Photo: Giorgio Zucchiatti

As Biennale curator, Aravena wanted to investigate the ways in which architects respond to the world’s big issues, including migration, housing, pollution and crime. These are new challenges, he says, and the Biennale is an opportunity to share knowledge and develop new strategies to cope. All admirable sentiments in my book, but he’s drawn criticism for helming a “guileless” Biennale overly preoccupied with “architecttura povera” (or “poor architecture”, a play on the Italian modern art movement Arte Povera) . As one critic asked, “Can (or should) a discipline so regularly in the service of power and capital be honest when celebrating the most earnest and humble of works?” But I don’t think you can knock Aravena, whose official theme for is “Reporting From the Front”, for having his heart in the right place; a Biennale that celebrated only ostentatious, egotistical and socially apathetic architecture would really be worth getting stuck into.

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The Biennale’s main exhibition spaces are within the Arsenale, an immense medieval shipbuilding centre, and at the Giardini, the greenest part of Venice. As curator, Aravena gets the Arsenale for his show. Inside the main hall, among walls of ancient brick and thick concrete columns, he has created a showcase of works that illustrate architects tackling big problems. It’s a vast assortment of work that would take days to get through properly. I gave it a morning; these are my highlights.

There are plenty of urban fascinations here. Public space used to assuage megalopolis-induced fears in Mexico City; new ways of looking at garbage in a Mumbai slum; a single building in Albania that became a touchstone for an entire building industry and code update. Chinese firm Amateur Architects shows a ‘library’ of traditional materials – recycled bricks, raw concrete, clay tiles – with which they create buildings that actually look Chinese.

There are ‘droneports’ for Rwanda and low-cost housing for Lisbon. A Thai exhibition shows how a post-earthquake school reconstruction benefitted the entire community. In Sri Lanka, architect Milinda Pathiraja came up with a strategy to assist demilitarisation: get soldiers to replace guns with building tools. Heavy stuff, but architecture can also be about pure delight, as demonstrated by Transsolar and Anja Thierfelder‘s Lightscapes, an intense cluster of light beams like sun streaming through dust.

Lightscapes, by Transsolar + Anja Thierfelder

Lightscapes, by Transsolar + Anja Thierfelder

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Asked for a highlight of the Biennale, New Zealand curator Charles Walker opts for Korea’s smart exhibition The FAR Game, which examines the difficulties of wresting architecture from the brutal pragmatism of property developers motivated almost exclusively by Floor Area Ratios (or FAR – basically, the number of people you can cram into a floor for maximum profit). It is, says Walker, “a meticulously researched programme for how architects can work creatively for the common good in cities dominated by short-sighted regulation, property speculation and greed.

“I’m looking at you, Auckland.”

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At each Biennale a group of judges tours all the national exhibitions, and awards one the coveted Gold Lion. This year’s deserved winner was Spain. Some exhibitions bury their ideas so deep inside layers of convoluted architecture-speak that it’s hard to discern what the point actually is. Spain, on the other hand, played one note and it played it very well. Unfinished portrays 80 ways that abandoned building projects – post-crash Spain is riddled with them – have been unexpectedly repurposed. It’s a traditional exhibition of photos and drawings, but very impressive.

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The Australians have a new pavilion, an inscrutable black box that hovers alongside a canal within the Giardini, and within it they have built a pool. Architecture writer and NZ Institute of Architects (NZIA) communications manager John Walsh attended the opening. He reports that there was a “fair bit of rhetoric about the centrality of the swimming pool in Australian society and the democratic nature of the (public) swimming pool, but the best moments were Ian ‘Thorpedo’ Thorpe’s opening speech – and a young Kiwi boy calling the Aussies’ bluff by getting down to his speedos for a swim. The attendants were not amused.”

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One of my favourite moments was seeing Nigeria-born, Netherlands-based architect Kunlé Adeyemi launching his floating pavilion down the Grand Canal. Adeyemi, who spoke at last year’s NZIA conference in Auckland, has received wide acclaim for his floating school for the children of Makoko, the lagoon-slum in Lagos, Nigeria. While the authorities’ preference for the lagoon would be to raze it, Adeyemi’s is to populate it with floating multi-use structures like his prototype school.

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Niall McLaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou’s Losing Myself boldly took on the subject of dementia, with designs for those who will, because of their condition, never be able to properly situate themselves within a space. Losing Myself is based on an Alzheimer’s respite centre McLaughlin designed in Dublin 15 years ago and is expressed in the exhibition through a grid of towers and speakers, with projected drawings and sound showing the occupation of the centre by 16 patients over 24 hours. At least I think it did. The exhibit was as challenging to decipher as it was unnerving. Which is the point, I guess.

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Two strong themes stand out at this year: housing availability and affordability, and the refugee crisis. The Brits were the most successful, or at least the most ambitious, of the countries that took on housing. Their exhibition, Home Economics, uncoupled the home from its status as an economic asset. Instead of merely creating better versions of already established (but broken) housing models, the exhibition argued for “new models of housing and new ways to pay for them”. Home Economics explores new ways of living, from collective ownership, to short-term residencies, to homes for occupants who span multiple generations – and the ways digital technology like Air BnB- and Uber-like models might enhance distribution.

The Richard Rogers exhibition on mass housing at the British Pavilion. Photo: David St George

The Richard Rogers exhibition on mass housing at the British Pavilion. Photo: David St George

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There are 19 million refugees in the world, and for a number of countries at the Biennale, how to house them all is their primary architectural concern. The German exhibition, Making Heimat: Germany, Arrival Country, made a physical gesture of openness by inserting new openings into the walls of the Giardini pavilion – perhaps the only physical changes to the building since the swastikas and Nazi eagle came off in 1945. The exhibition is very wordy – big on telling, less obviously about doing – although having accepted more than a million refugees in 2015 alone, the Germans certainly can’t be accused of being all talk.

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There’s plenty more at the Biennale to discuss, not all of it good, or even understandable. Uruguay, for instance, encouraged a little light pilfering: “subtract” something from another pavilion and you’d receive a vacuum-packed bag of dirt (you’d probably want to declare that) in exchange. The proceeds were to go on display at an exhibition in Montevideo. That particular swap meet has since been shut down. From a marketing perspective there was one overt bum note, the distribution of pocket ashtrays, courtesy of Japan Tobacco Inc. Perhaps the organisers were concerned about the 250,000 visitors creating a layer of ciggie ash of Pompeian proportions, hastening the island’s near certain demise. At an event focused on global solutions for the common good, tobacco company sponsorship couldn’t help but leave a bad taste in the mouth.

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